The Republican presidential candidate debates, which have shown non-Republicans just how factionalized the party is and how many possible meanings of the term “conservative” there are, have produced one point of general agreement among the many contenders: Ronald Reagan was a great president. For a committed Republican audience, Reagan stands first of all for victory. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush all lost elections during their careers. If you don’t count presidential primaries, Reagan retired from politics undefeated: he had two substantial wins in the California governor’s races of 1966 and 1970, and two landslides—489 and 525 of the 538 votes in the electoral college—in the presidential elections of 1980 and 1984. No presidential candidate of either party since Reagan has been as popular on election day as he was. No wonder his name has a talismanic quality.
The idea that Reagan was not just a winner but also a major historical figure is commonplace among Republicans, but not only among Republicans. Barack Obama told a newspaper editorial board in Reno, early in the 2008 campaign, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” That’s a claim for Reagan’s largeness, if not his greatness, that a lot of Democratic politicians would agree with, though maybe not publicly.
It is worth remembering how unlikely it would have seemed in the early going of Reagan’s national career that he would wind up in the pantheon. Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was thought to prove that American conservatism was dead forever—but Reagan entered politics just at that moment, as an avowed conservative, evidently to the right of Goldwater. No president but Reagan has come into politics from a career in show business, with not a day of government experience before the age of fifty-five.
The publication in recent years of the copious diaries Reagan kept as president, and of collections of his letters, speeches, and radio scripts, has shown that he devoted probably more of his time to writing than any other sitting president, but also that he was remarkably uninvolved in the daily work of government. During his first couple of years as president, his popularity dropped dramatically because of a severe recession that he seemed hardly to notice. And what now stands as his great achievement, laying the groundwork for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, was something that almost no one saw coming, even as Reagan was leaving office. In 1984, I concluded an Atlantic Monthly profile…
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